By Devon “Doc” Wendell
I recall sitting in my stale, marijuana smelling bedroom in college with a stack of Sonny Rollins albums thinking “This is the greatest musician on earth or anywhere else.” And I still think that today. I recall what records I was listening to at that moment; “Sonny Rollins Volume 2,” Sonny Rollins: A Night At The Village Vanguard,” “Saxophone Colossus,” “Worktime,” “Way Out West,” Freedom Suite,” “Thelonious Monk-Brilliant Corners,” The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet: On Basin Street,” and Kenny Dorham’s “Jazz Contrasts.” Every humorous burst of smeared notes or hipper than hip long tones Sonny played on his tenor saxophone swung harder than anything I was accustomed to.
What struck me most about Sonny’s playing, whether it was on a solo recording or a project with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Babs Gonzalez or John Coltrane was the humor he incorporated in his solos.
There is the Buddhist like teacher/master student side to Sonny and there’s the jubilant, jokester who would quote “Camp Town Races” during Monk’s blues classic “Misterioso” and make it cook as much as the “serious” stuff.
Listen to “Sonny Rollins Plus Four” with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. I can’t think of another modern jazz album that celebrates the joys of life as much as that record. It’s uplifting the way great gospel music is uplifting and this was during a time when many modern jazz players took themselves a tad more seriously than they should have. It’s a powerful testimony to the origins of jazz in a highly visceral sense. I think of Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory when I listen to that recording.
Although I’m primarily a blues guitarist, Sonny Rollins has always been thee example of the most perfect musician in any genre of music. A man, who at 87 years young still probably practices more than most musicians a third of his age. An artists who knew what was hip before the media caught on. Sonny played with Monk when critics dismissed him as “some eccentric” for the beatnik crowd. Sonny played in Miles Davis’ first solo bands, long before “Kind Of Blue” or “Sketches Of Spain” dazzled young baby-boomers.
We all know that romantic and timeless image of Sonny practicing on The Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. That image stays with us because it exemplifies the greatest devotion a mere mortal can give to his music and how it must sound to the world around him. Sonny has always reinvented himself, even if it meant taking long hiatuses from the cookie cutter music business. I’ve had lengthy conversations with musicians all over the world about Sonny’s greatness. We love you, Sonny Rollins. With all of the turmoil happening in today’s world, I’m so happy to celebrate your 87th Birthday.